Adams Papers

From John Adams to Boston Patriot, 26 May 1809

Quincy, May 26, 1809.


In pamphlet, page 27, it is said that the great alteration in public opinion had put it completely in the power of our executive to control the machinations of any future public agent, of France. Therefore Philadelphia was a safer scene of negotiation than Paris.

Mr. Hamilton’s erroneous conceptions of the public opinion may be excused by the considerations that he was not a native of the United States; that he was born and bred in the West Indies, till he went to Scotland, for education, where he spent his time in a seminary of learning, till seventeen years of age; after which no man ever perfectly acquired a national character; then entered a college at Newyork, from whence he issued into the army as an aid de camp. In these situations he could scarcely acquire the opinions, feelings, or principles of the American people. His error may be excused by the further consideration, that his time was chiefly spent in his pleasures, in his electioneering visits, conferences and correspondences, in propagating prejudices against every man whom he thought his superior in the public estimation; and in composing ambitious reports upon finance, while the real business of the treasury was done by Duer, by Woolcot, and even, for some time and in part, by Tenche Coxe.

His observation that “France will never be without secret agents,” is true: and it is equally true that England will always have secret agents and emissaries too, “That her partizans among our own citizens, can much better promote her cause than any agents she can send, is also true:” but it is at least equally true of the partizans of Great Britain. We have seen, in the foregoing papers, glaring and atrocious instances of the exertions of her public agents, secret emissaries and partizans among our citizens. But none have yet been mentioned that bear any comparison, in point of guilt and arrogance, with those of all kinds that have been exhibited within the last two or three years.

My worthy fellow-citizens! Our form of government, inestimable as it is, exposes us more than any other to the insidious intrigues and pestilented influence of foreign nations. Nothing but our inflexible neutrality can preserve us. The public negotiations and secret intrigues of the English and the French have been employed, for centuries, in every court and country of Europe. Look back to the history of Spain, Holland, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Prussia, Italy, and Turkey, for the last hundred years. How many revolutions have been caused! How many emperors and kings have fallen victims to the alternate triumphs of parties excited by Englishmen or Frenchmen? And can we expect to escape the vigilant attention of politicians so experienced, so keen sighted, and so rich? If we convince them that our attachment to neutrality is unchangeable, they will let us alone: but as long as a hope remains, in either power, of seducing us to engage in war on his side and against his enemy, we shall be torn and convulsed by their manœuvres.

Never was there a grosser mistake of public opinion than that of Mr. Hamilton. The great alteration in public opinion had not then, nor has it yet, taken place. The French republic still existed: The French people were still considered as struggling for liberty, amidst all their internal revolutions, their conflicts of parties, and their bloody wars against the coalitions of European powers. Monarchy, empire, had not been suggested. Bonaparte had appeared only as a soldier; had acted on the public stage in no civil or political employment. A sense of gratitude, for services rendered us in our revolution, by far more sincere and ardent than reason or justice could warrant, still remained on the minds, not only of our republicans, but of great numbers of our soundest federalists. Did Mr. Hamilton recollect the state of our presses? Recollect the names and popular eloquence of the editors of the opposition papers?—That scoffing, scorning wit, and that caustic malignity of soul which appeared so remarkably in all the writings of Thomas Paine and Callender, which to the disgrace of human nature, never fails to command attention and applause? The members of the Senate and House, who were decided against the administration, their continual intercourse & communications with French emissaries? The hideous clamor against the alien law, and sedition law, both considered as levelled entirely against the French and their friends, and the surrender according to the British treaty, of the Irish murderer Nash, imposed upon the public for Jonathan Robbins? Did he recollect the insurrection in Pennsylvania. The universal and perpetual inflammatory publications against the land tax, stamp tax, coach tax, excise law, and eight per cent loa? Did he never see nor hear of the circular letters of members of Congress from the middle and southern states? Did he know nothing of the biting sarcasms, the burning rage against himself and his own army? Did he know nothing of a kind of journal that was published of every irregular act of any officer or soldier, of every military punishment that was inflicted, under the appellation of the Cannibal’s Progress? Did he see nothing of the French cockades ostentatiously exhibited against the American cockades?

Had a French minister been seen here with his suite, he would have been instantly informed of every source and symptom of discontent. Almost every Frenchman upon the continent, and they were then numerous in all the states, would have been employed in criminating the American government, in applauding the condescension of the French Directory, and the friendly, conciliating disposition of the French nation. Nothing could have been kept secret. the popular clamor for peace on any terms would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to resist. The multitude in Philadelphia, as it was, were almost as ripe to pull me out of my house as they had been to dethrone Washington in the time of Genet. Even the night of the fast day, the streets were crouded with multitudinous assemblies of the people, especially that before my door, and kept in order only, as many people thought, by a military patrol, ordered, I believe, by the Governor of Pennsylvania.

In these circumstances, it was my opinion, and it is so still, it was infinitely better to conduct the negociation at Paris than in Philadelphia. But if this was and is an error, it was certainly not of such consequence as Hamilton thought fit to represent it. If it was an error, I humbly conceive it would have better become Mr. Hamilton to have been silent, than to endeavor to make it unpopular—since the step was taken and irrevocable, when he wrote.

But the real truth is, he was in hopes, as well as Mr. Liston, that the French government would neither send a minister here nor receive one there—in short, that they would have gone to war with us. If we had waited for a minister here, much time would have been lost: our little naval force under Talbot, Truxton, Decatur, Little, &c. was doing wonders in protecting our commerce, and in fighting and capturing French ships of war. Some of our citizens were not wanting in irritating expressions of exultation and triumph, particularly in parading a French national ship that had been captured by Decatur up the Delaware, in sight of all the citizens of Philadelphia, with the French national colors reversed under our American flag. Hamilton hoped that such provocations would produce an irreconcileable breach and a declaration of war. He was disappointed and lost the command of his army. Hinc illæ Lacrimæ!

There were other circumstances of more serious and solid importance, indicative of public opinion, which Mr. Hamilton, if he had been a vigilant and sagacious statesman, could not have overlooked. The venerable patriarchs, Pendleton and Wythe, of Virginia, openly declaimed for peace; the former came out in print with his name, protesting against a war with our sister republic of France. General Heath came out with an address to the public in Massachusetts, declaring that every man he met was decidedly for peace. When the election was coming on, the legislature of Massachusetts dare not trust the people, either at large or in districts, to choose electors, but assumed that office to themselves. In New-York, the great interest and vast bodies of people, who are supposed to follow or direct the two great families of Clintons and Livingstons, aided by all the address and dexterity of Aaron Burr, was decidedly for peace with France. In Pennsylvania, Governor M’Kean, with his majority of thirty thousand votes, or in other words, at the head of the two vast bodies of Germans and Irish, reinforced by great numbers of English Presbyterians, Quakers and Anabaptists, were decidedly against a war with France.

After enumerating all these symptoms of the popular bias, it would be frivolous to enlarge upon the conversations of which I was informed at taverns and insurance offices, threatening violence to the President by pulling him out of his chair, upon the French cockades that were every where paraded before my eyes, in opposition to the black cockade, or upon the declarations and oaths, which I know were made by no small numbers, that if we went to war with France, and the French should come here, they would join them against the federalists and the English. These things I recollect with grief, because they do no honor to our country: but I must say they disgrace it no more than many more solemn actions and declarations of the opposite party against France, and in favor of England, have done within the last twelve months.

In these circumstances, it was the height of folly to say as Hamilton says, that it would have been safer to negotiate at Philadelphia than at Paris. As to our ambassador’s being overawed in Paris, by any finesse of politicians, or triumphs of the French arms: We must take care to send men who are equal to such trials. The French have not, as yet, gained any great and unjust advantages of us by all their policy. Our envoys were precisely instructed. Every article was prescribed that was to be insisted on as an ultimatum. In a treaty they could not depart from a punctilio. A convention they might make, as they did, at their own risque. But the President and Senate were under no obligation to ratify it. Had it betrayed a single point of essential honor or interest, I would have sent it back, as Mr. Jefferson did the treaty with England, without laying it before the Senate. If I had been doubtful, the Senate would have decided.

Where, then, was the danger of this negotiation? No where but in the disturbed imagination of Alexander Hamilton. To me only it was dangerous. To me, as a public man, it was fatal, and that only because Alexander Hamilton, was pleased to wield it as a poisoned weapon, with the express purpose of destroying. Though I owe him no thanks for this, I most heartily rejoice in it, because it has given me eight years, incomparably the happiest of my life: whereas, had I been chosen president again, I am certain I could not have lived another year. It was utterly impossible that I could have lived through one year more of such labors and cares as were studiously and maliciously accumulated upon me, by the French faction and the British faction; the former aided by the republicans, and the latter by Alexander Hamilton, and his satellites.

John Adams.

Printed Source--Boston Patriot.

Index Entries